Being in a car accident is a traumatizing experience that can have a long-lasting impact. Fortunately, most individuals survive auto accidents, but they must often contend with painful physical and emotional injuries. One such consequence is survivor’s guilt, triggered when an accident victim lives while another dies.

But what is survivor’s guilt, and how does it manifest after an accident? In this article, Dr. Louis Patino, a personal injury lawyer in McAllen and San Antonio, Texas, draws on his experience representing many clients who have experienced survivor’s guilt and explores practical strategies and techniques for overcoming it.

What Is Survivor’s Guilt?

Survivor’s guilt is a mental condition that can occur when a person survives a traumatic event — such as a car accident — when others did not. It’s characterized by a mix of emotions, including sadness, confusion, and, of course, guilt. Survivor’s guilt is a serious condition that can disrupt a person’s life if not addressed. Some of the most common signs include:

  • Feeling responsible for another’s death — even if the accident was not their fault.
  • Difficulty performing daily activities.
  • Intrusive or obsessive thoughts about the accident, especially about what they could have or should have done differently.
  • Feelings of helplessness.
  • Lack of motivation or interest.
  • Isolating themselves from others.
  • Persistent fear and anxiety.
  • Flashbacks of the accident.
  • Suicidal thoughts.

Survivor’s guilt primarily affects people emotionally, but some may also experience physical symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, and excessive fatigue.

Seeking Help for Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor’s guilt affects everyone differently, meaning there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. However, several methods can help you manage your symptoms and overcome survivor’s guilt. These primarily fall into two categories: active coping techniques and professional support.

Active Coping Techniques

Active coping techniques help people with survivor’s guilt channel their emotions into something more positive. This can be therapeutic and distract an individual from the emotional distress they may be feeling. Active coping techniques are best used for managing emotions as they arise.

Physical Exercise

Physical activity releases feel-good chemicals in the brain, making it a natural stress reliever and mood-booster. It can also improve sleep, helping with the fatigue and insomnia many experience.

Ideal exercises include walking, gardening, and swimming, which are free or relatively inexpensive, and importantly, they also have little impact on the joints. It’s vital to seek your doctor’s advice before embarking on any new exercise regime, especially after a car accident, as your physical injuries may limit what you can do, and you do not want to compromise your recovery.

If you are pursuing compensation after your accident, you should also speak to your lawyer. Suppose you claim you cannot leave your home because of severe emotional distress or are claiming for a specific injury, and an insurance adjuster discovers you go to the gym for an hour each day. They may use that information to discredit your claim and argue that your injuries aren’t severe.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Mindfulness practices are effective for managing intrusive thoughts, as they anchor your mind in the present moment.

Mindfulness encompasses several methods, and you do not need to be a master meditator or experienced yogi to benefit. Practices include breathing exercises — such as box breathing — progressive muscle relaxation, and the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.

The 5-4-3-2-1 method is particularly popular with people who dislike traditional meditation because it engages the senses rather than requiring you to sit still with your eyes closed and try to quiet your mind. To perform this practice, identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Doing so allows you to focus on the now rather than dwelling on the past and how the accident could have had a different outcome.


Expressing your feelings through the written word can be a cathartic process, providing a safe and non-judgmental outlet for your thoughts and fears. Journaling is also a beneficial reflection tool. Overcoming survivor’s guilt is not linear and you will experience ups and downs, making it difficult to see progress. However, revisiting your entries can show you how far you’ve come and help you identify patterns in behavior and areas for further development.

A journal is also invaluable for a compensation claim, providing evidence of how your accident has impacted you physically and emotionally.

Professional Support for Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor’s guilt can make you feel you’re all alone, but that’s far from the case, and there are many resources available. Reaching out can often be the hardest part, especially if your guilt makes you feel you don’t deserve support, but it’s vital for healing and moving forward.

Therapy for Survivor’s Guilt

Professional counseling or therapy can be invaluable for overcoming survivor’s guilt. Professionals can offer personalized strategies and therapeutic techniques designed to manage self-blame, fear, and anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often recommended and works by identifying and transforming negative beliefs. Survivor’s guilt often manifests as thoughts that you shouldn’t have survived, you should have done more, or you are responsible for someone else’s death, and they simply are not true. CBT can help you acknowledge this, making it a particularly effective treatment.

Therapy can also take place in a group setting. Sharing your experience with people in similar circumstances can be comforting, make you feel less alone, and provide insight into what coping mechanisms and techniques have worked for others and may work for you.

The Importance of Self-Forgiveness

Self-forgiveness is a vital part of dealing with survivor’s guilt. It involves recognizing that you’re not to blame for the accident, absolving yourself of perceived wrongdoing, and permitting yourself to move on.

It’s vital to remember that forgiving yourself does not mean you’re ignoring or diminishing the accident. Rather, you understand that accidents happen and many circumstances are beyond control — we do not have the power to predict or change every outcome (and that’s okay), and your survival is not a wrong that must be righted.

Journaling, mindfulness, and therapy are valuable for beginning the journey to self-forgiveness.

How a Personal Injury Lawyer Can Help?

Survivor’s guilt may make you feel you are responsible for your accident, but objectively, that may not be the case. You may be entitled to compensation if someone else’s negligence caused your accident (and, in some states, you may still be able to claim even if you are partly at fault). Car accidents have a massive physical impact, and you may need expensive treatment for your injuries, but you also deserve compensation for your emotional distress, especially if it impacts your quality of life.

A personal injury attorney can help you determine what you might be able to claim compensation for, including your pain and suffering, medical bills, lost wages, and vehicle damage. If you are experiencing survivor’s guilt because a loved one died in a car crash, an attorney can help you file a wrongful death claim, entitling you to additional financial support for funeral costs and loss of companionship.

Survivor’s guilt is distressing, and the road to recovery isn’t easy or fast, but you are not alone, and with the right resources and support, you can move forward.

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